Lauren Ridloff is playing the lead role in the Broadway revival of “Children of a Lesser God.” Haven’t heard of her? That’s probably because this is her first acting gig.
The actress reveals the surprising turn of events that got to Broadway in the latest episode of Stagecraft, Variety‘s theater podcast. In a conversation with her co-star, Joshua Jackson, and with Variety‘s theater editor Gordon Cox, she also shared why “Children of a Lesser God” is so personally meaningful to her.
“It was the first time I saw a deaf woman not speaking on the big screen, using sign language in American Sign Language,” said Ridloff, who was born deaf and spoke on Stagecraft through interpreter Candace Broecker-Penn. “At that time, I couldn’t even understand everything she was saying because I had grown up using signing in English order. And I am so thankful to my parents, because it looked so beautiful on that screen, and I was seeing someone like me.”
The revival of the 1979 play, directed by Kenny Leon, incorporates supertitles for deaf audiences into the set design, also offer closed captioning at every performance as well as American Sign Language interpretation at some shows. Accessibility is important to everyone involved.
“A couple weekends ago I went to go see a show, and I had a bunch of opinions about it and really wanted to talk to Lauren about it,” Jackson, the “Dawson’s Creek” and “Fringe” star making his Broadway debut in “Children,” recalled. “And I was like, ‘So, are you going to get a chance to go and see this? Because I want to talk to you about this.’ … And she’s like, ‘Well, no, I’m not going to go see that show because it’s not accessible to me.’ … And this is a Broadway show. I was frankly shocked — and then not that shocked, but shocked, right? That it should not be that she is not invited into that experience, one, because I want to talk to her about it, but two, because it’s just wrong.”
Download and subscribe to Stagecraft on iTunes, GooglePlay, SoundCloud and Stitcher. The full transcript of the episode follows.
STAGECRAFT Episode 26:
Joshua Jackson & Lauren Ridloff, “Children of a Lesser God“
Gordon Cox: You’re listening to Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast, bringing you behind-the-scenes with the stars and creators of the hottest shows on Broadway and beyond. I’m your host, Variety’s theater editor, Gordon Cox. On this episode of Stagecraft, I’ll be talking to Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff. Jackson, of course, is an actor you’ll recognize from his long career in TV, where he spent six seasons as Pacey on Dawnson’s Creek, later played lead roles in “Fringe” and, most recently, the Showtime series “The Affair.” But if the name Lauren Ridloff doesn’t ring a bell, that’s probably because this is her first professional acting gig. The actress, who was born deaf, co-stars with Jackson in the Broadway revival of Mark Medoff’s 1979 play. Jackson plays James, a teacher at a school for the deaf, who becomes romantically involved with a former student named Sarah, played by Ridloff in the role that won Marlee Matlin an Academy Award for her turn in the 1986 film adaptation opposite William Hurt. Jackson and Ridloff are here with me in the studio, along with an interpreter who will speak for Ridloff. Josh and Lauren, thanks for being here.
Joshua Jackson: Thank you for having us.
Lauren Ridloff (speaking through interpreter Candace Broecker-Penn): Yes, it’s great to be here.
GC: We’re talking – Oh, and also welcome to Candace, before I forget. I should introduce Candace, who’s speaking for Lauren. Thank you for being here too, Candace. We’re talking just as the show has begun previews. You’ve done, I don’t know, five or six, right? Less than a week? How’s it going?
LR: You start.
JJ: Honestly, I think – You see us here with smiles, so –
GC: So far so good, right?
JJ: Yeah, exactly. That’s the honest truth right there. No disasters.
GC: And what’s been the biggest surprise so far? Lauren?
LR: You mean the biggest surprise of being on Broadway?
GC: Yeah, for instance, but doing the show for the first six or seven times. What’s it been like?
LR: What really has been surprising to me is how full the house is each night, and we’re just beginning our previews. So we finished our fifth show, I guess, yesterday and it is wonderful to see the audience at the end of the show. Because for me speaking for myself as a deaf actor, I’m not hearing the audience during the show. I’m not getting that kind of feedback. It’s a black void to me out there. But when the lights come on for our curtain call and I can see the audience, it’s been a really nice surprise.
GC: I bet. This production of “Children of a Lesser God” is directed by Kenny Leon, who is the Tony winning director of “Fences” and “Raisin in the Sun” with Denzel Washington, and Josh, you worked with Kenny in 2016 in Lydia Diamond’s play “Smart People” Off Broadway at Second Stage. Was that how the project came to you, through Kenny?
JJ: How it came to me, yeah. Kenny had been working on it for I think several years at that point beforehand, and it was a piece that he had wanted to do I think for four or five years, let’s say. It was through the process of working together on “Smart People” that he brought it up and we started talking about it. And I loved the experience of working with him on “Smart People.”
JJ: He’s a combination of a lot of things that I have rarely found, maybe never found, inside of one director. So he is an unbelievably trustworthy set of eyes, has an incredible sense of story — he was an actor, so an incredible sense of the places to find emotionally inside of a story. He is unbelievably dedicated and he is very blunt. He is very, very blunt, and I really appreciate the not having — If he can say something in ten words, he doesn’t use eleven. And I appreciate that. Once you get to the place of trust with him, you can understand that any time he tells you something — and sometimes it’s not easy to hear — it comes from a place of a co-conspirator rather than that place of needing to break you down.
GC: You also had a spectacular cast in that show. Mahershala Ali, who was I think post-“House of Cards,” pre-Oscar for “Moonlight,” and Tessa Thompson was in it as well.
JJ: And Anne Son was the fourth. So yeah, I mean, Kenny by reputation attracts good people. So yeah. I had a tremendous experience with him on that. And we sort of lightly had talked about working together again. He had this thing but it was nebulous at that point, and then as it came closer to fruition, he called me and asked —
GC: “Children”? He had “Children”?
JJ:. Yeah, he had “Children,” sorry. And so as we got closer to — by the end of that year he was really frustrated with the process of kind of talking around it, and so he put together a read-through and he asked me to be a part of the read-through. And he said he’d put together a group of actors that he knew and wanted to work with, and had found this amazing woman who he thought might be good for the leading lady.
GC: This is a pretty extraordinary story, Lauren. Tell us a little bit about how you first met Kenny, and then how that went from there.
LR: Yes, well. So Kenny had an acquaintance that he had reached out to in Boston — He decided he wanted to learn more about the deaf community, more about the language —
GC: For his work on this play.
LR: Yes, to prepare for this. At that time I don’t even think he was sure it was going to go forward or that he would do it. He was just considering it before going ahead. So he wanted to explore the relevance of the story in terms of the deaf community to today. It just shows you how brilliant Kenny is, because he was willing to invest an amount of time and research and preparation to make sure he really wanted to commit to the project before going forward. So, anyway, this acquaintance connected the two of us, and we met for coffee in a coffee shop for the first lesson and I was teaching him. I taught him basic signs. I refused to teach him how to spell the alphabet, because so many people learn that and end up just using finger spelling as a crutch, so I was tough with him and said, “We are not starting there.” It was a great experience to be his teacher. He was my student for a year. We would meet once a week. And we would talk a little bit about the play and he expressed interest in having me work with the play as a consultant.
GC: And what were you doing in general, at the time? Were you teaching ASL, is that how you were making a living?
LR: Well, at that moment in my life I was a stay-at-home mom. Before then I had been teaching kindergarten and first grade for almost ten years in a public school here in Manhattan. Anyway, at that time I just happened to be a stay-at-home mom, and when I was offered that opportunity to work with Kenny, I thought, “Sure. A chance to get out of the house once in a while! Just get a little bit of a break from my sweet baby boy. Sure!” And then here we are today.
GC: And what did you think when he first proposed — How did he broach the subject of, “Hey, do you want to be in the play?”
LR: Oh, well. He’s a sly fox. He pretty much dropped off the face of the earth after we initially met. He had a few other projects, some TV work. So then one day he contacted me out of the blue, and said “Would you mind meeting with the casting director to get ready for auditions and stuff? I’d like to feel you out and talk about some of the specific details to do this reading.” So I went to meet him and the casting director — it was Bernie Telsey. I had no idea that I was “auditioning” for the role. But in the end of our conversation, the casting director, Bernie, asked me if I would like to participate in the reading. And honestly, at that time, I didn’t even know what “a reading” meant. I thought, “Okay, sure, I’ll try that.” Then they gave me more details and they said, “Oh, you’re going to do this reading with Joshua Jackson,” and I thought “Okay, well, that’s cool.” And we met and we did that first reading, and then Kenny pulled me aside after that and he asked me: “If this goes all the way, are you willing to go all the way too?” And I said yes.
LR: I ask myself that very question! Why? It shows that it’s important to me. “Children of a Lesser God” is a classic story and is a story that’s been done so many times all over the country, in high schools, colleges, local theater communities. And I think it’s often done with a white woman, and so I think this was a chance to really show Sarah as a person of color.
GC: Is “Children of a Lesser God” personally meaningful for you? Did you know the story and connect with it previously?
LR: Well, actually, my parents took me to see the movie when it first came out. I think that was in 1986?
GC: Six. ’86. I just looked that up.
LR: Okay, so yes, thank you for doing your research! I should know that! So 1986, I think I was eight at the time. But it was the first time I saw a deaf woman not speaking on the big screen, using sign language in American Sign Language, and at that time I couldn’t even understand everything she was saying because I had grown up using signing in English order. And I am so thankful to my parents because it looked so beautiful on that screen, and I was seeing someone like me. So for me, it’s a personal, meaningful experience.
GC: Wow. That sounds like a lot of pressure, actually, to take that on, something that is so meaningful.
LR: Well, no, not really, because I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
GC: And now you do.
LR: Yes. Oh yes. Now I definitely know. But even now, as long as we are telling the story truthfully — that’s the buzzword in our rehearsal room, always, with Kenny. He just keeps reminding us that we are here to tell the truth and to be truthful and in our telling of the truth, that takes all that pressure off, I think. Because if we can find a way, and find a way with Josh and with all the other actors there, to share the truth with everyone watching us, how can we go wrong?
GC: How is Josh’s sign language?
LR: I’ll tell you. Josh is new to signing so he is a new signer. But he is so natural. I think that deaf people that grow up, we meet so many people who don’t sign well, and so we develop this sixth sense about a person. “Do you have it? Are you going to be able to learn it?” Or: “There’s no hope for you. Sorry.” We develop that. But with Josh, I really will say from the first time I met him, I knew he had it. I was never worried. Kenny made the right choice.
GC: You did it last summer at the Berkshire Theater Group. What did you learn about the play doing there? What were the takeaways from that for you?
JJ: Well, that it worked. That’s the first time that I had the chance to do it. And the process of rehearsal was such a tremendous learning curve for me.
GC: Did you know the play, Josh?
JJ: I knew the play. I had also seen the movie when I was a kid. But truthfully, I mean, I only remembered it vaguely. And I think that the only time that I had seen the play was when I was in high school. I don’t think it was a high school production, but I think it was a play in Vancouver done at a very small playhouse. And so I didn’t know it that well, and I hadn’t seen it done at a high level. And truthfully it wasn’t until we did the first read-through — Because even the reading of it is difficult for a hearing person, or a speaking person, I should say. Because the reading of it — Because the translation of her signs is in English on the page, the reading reads repetitive. And it’s maybe a failure of my own imagination, but as I was reading it, I was like, “God, there’s a lot of repetition in this play.” Until we of course are doing it in the first read-through and I’m like, “Oh no, dummy, she’s signing the other half. “
GC: And are you then speaking some of those lines? I know there are supertitles as well.
JJ: For the hearing audiences, the way that Mark has structured it is that James is doing what’s called Sim-Comming, which is signing and speaking at the same time.
GC: James, your character?
JJ: Sorry, yeah, James Leeds, pardon me. And then in the times that he’s not directly translating, Sarah signs into just repeating what she’s saying, or interpreting what she’s saying through his own response. You know, implying what she’s just signed. He is speaking in her first-person voice. So the hearing audience, the story is definitely communicated. And then supertitles I think bring in — in the places where the play is not specifically designed for a deaf audience, the supertitles bridge that gap. Because we don’t put any of Sarah’s dialogue, I don’t think any of the signed dialogue, into the supertitles. It’s only the spoken English that’s in the supertitles.
LR: That’s right.
JJ: And it’s built into the set. It’s not a scroll that lives on top that is something outside. It is an integrated, thought about from the moment that the play started. It is a part of our play.
GC: Lauren, for you, stepping out on stage for the first time, what was it like? Did it come naturally? Were you nervous? What was the experience like for you?
LR: On the stage in the Berkshires, it wasn’t really the first time ever being onstage. I was comfortable being onstage, but I had never been a professional actor. I’d been onstage for other reasons. Public speaking, small things that I had experienced. So for me, it was such a challenge. That first reading was so scary. What the play was asking from me, particularly at the end. It was really a challenge.
LR: I had to face some of my own emotional demons, my own demons — No — Well, I don’t want to go into all the specifics. You have to come see it!
GC: No, of course. I just mean, do you mean emotional challenges?
LR: Yes, definitely, partly my emotional challenges. But also even my own values. What I thought was important, this play was questioning for me. And I had to really suspend — I don’t even know how to say it. I had to really change my own mindset in order to be able to do this play. And so I had to give up something that I had promised myself a long time ago that — I had promised myself. I had to let go of that to go ahead and do it. It was so freeing. It’s changed my life in many ways. Especially when it comes to just being who I am. Using my voice, laughing, being here. It’s been an amazing journey for me.
GC: Josh and Lauren are having a silent conversation.
LR: I don’t know. Josh is asking me, and I don’t know if I — I should. Yeah.
GC: What? They just had a conversation that I didn’t understand.
JJ: Sorry. Not to cut you out like that, but I just wanted to ask her a private question.
GC: No, I like it. It’s good. And so this production is set at the time it was written, is that correct? In sort of the late 70s, early 80s, ish?
JJ: That’s correct.
GC: Why was that decision made? Was there any thought of updating it to now?
JJ: Yeah, Kenny and Mark definitely had conversations about trying to, you know — How would we do it, and if we did it, would it add anything? And the advent of cell phones has changed communication inside of the deaf world, and video chat actually has changed it again, revolutionarily. And — I wasn’t in those conversations, but as Kenny has described it to me, every time they tried to put something in it, it just stuck out, right?
LR: Right, right.
JJ: I think what Kenny realizes is, it’s in the pantheon of great American plays. That’s why it was such a smash success when it came out. And it doesn’t need to be updated. It can play as it is. Because the things that are outdated — no cell phones; bell bottoms — those are now specific. It sets it into a time and place. But the universality of what’s going on, for a deaf woman, or two deaf women and a deaf man, and frankly just in love, and interpersonal relationships, and having nothing to do with deaf and hearing, the messages are both specific and very, very broad. The inability to see each other, to truly communicate, to respect each other as you are, that’s not just an issue of deaf and hearing . That’s an issue of human and human.
LR:. That’s right. That’s right. Kenny said that there were maybe some little things of catching up to technology that’s available today to consider putting that in, and then decided, you know, it wouldn’t have the right effect. That phone scene that we have in the play where James is frustrated trying to interpret for Sarah, if we tried to modify that to a video relay service, what deaf people use today, the whole point of the scene would be lost. We’d have to get rid of the scene. And the point isn’t technology. The point is James and Sarah’s human connection. And that is timeless. And we have a hard time listening to each other, always. Doesnt’ matter if you’re deaf or hearing. Doesn’t matter that we have more ways to communicate via texting or tweeting or Facebook or FaceTime or all these ways we have. I think we all are more deaf than ever. All of us. So. And the pun is intended.
GC: On Broadway, as in the sort of broader entertainment industry, people are very interested and very concerned about issues of diversity now. But I feel like often in the conversation, people can sometimes neglect include the idea of representation of people with different abilities. What do you hope this production of “Children of a Lesser God” does for that conversation?
JJ: [starts to talk] Just kidding. Well, actually, I’m happy to jump in, It’s kind of not my place, but —
LR: No, go for it!
JJ: I think partially — Representation is critically important, right? And we only need to see what’s been going on in the last couple of years as particularly black faces have been more represented in broad, popular media. We’ve just had “Wrinkle in Time,” “Black Panther,” just thinking of two big movies right now. And you only have to talk to any child, black or brown child after they walked out of “Black Panther” to understand the incredible importance of that. I also think that because the canon of western theater is predominantly white and predominantly male, it is incredibly important to throw away the ideas of what those characters are supposed to be. And unless there is something intrinsic about the whiteness or brownness or blueness or greenness, whatever, of the character, we need to get past the traditional versions of that casting. And I also also think that for the purposes of this play, what is so brilliant about the casting of Lauren is that it’s incidental representation. We didn’t change a single word of the play, but we enriched the play by virtue of her being her.
LR: There’s no need to make a change. And that’s the amazing thing about that. Also this play I think reaches out to such a diversity of people out in the world and I think eveyrone who comes to the play is going to find someone or something on that stage that theyr’e gonna connect to through the whole story. They’re going to identify with one of us. I mean we’ve talked about it before. Kenny has said they’ll laugh at different times, or they’ll cry at different times. There are times when parts of the audience will feel excluded. There’s a part where maybe there’s only hearing people talking, or James and Sarah are signing to each other and there is no spoken word there. So I think all that’s beautiful. It’s a great universal access for the whole community.
GC: Lauren — she just gave him an approving wink. Lauren, you mentioned earlier the idea that you don’t hear the audience repond when you’re in the show. Do you have an awareness of an audience in terms of their reponse and how a show is going?
LR: I’m very aware of that. I’m very aware of the audience. It’s different how Joshua does it. Joshua says he gets feedback directly from the audience. He can hear if someone’s leaning forward or yawning or any of those. I get that information through Josh. And sometimes just going onstage I can see Josh’s energy, he’s on fire. And then I know, “Oh, I know what the audience is doing to him.” Because I see it through him. And I go, “Oh, that must be the audience responding really well.” Or other times I’ll look at him and I can see that the audience maybe isn’t as responsive one night, and after each show I’ll ask him, “So, how was the audience?” And we’ll talk about it.
GC: Does he ever say anything surprising in answer to that question? Do you always read him right, I guess is my question?
LR: No, I don’t, and that’s why I ask! Because sometime I can’t tell. But I do get information from him. Sometimes it might surprise me — Maybe I think a scene was terrible, or totally not respecting women in general or something, or at least there’s a scene where I think that, but he’ll tell me people laugh at that. And I think, “People are laughing? Right now?” So there are surprises I get.
GC: Some time there are backstage cues that are audio. How are things changed backstage for everybody?
LR: Well, again. This is my first time on Broadway.
GC: So you don’t have a comparison.
LR: Right, I don’t know what is standard out there. What other people are doing. But what works for us deaf actors backstage is, there are cue lights. There’s a whole cue light system in place, so when the light goes off, we know that’s the time to go onstage. And that really works. The crew also has learned some signs so they can communicate with us. And before the show, we do have interpreters backstage that help make sure communication is easy, and it’s been great and important that the crew signs. And the actors, all of the actors. I mean, we have such a great trust level between all of us, I think.
GC: We should also mention that this production is, in addition to the supertitles that we talked about, there’s closed captioning available I believe at every performance…
LR: That’s right.
GC: … and then ASL interpretation at some performances.
LR: Yes, that’s right. You got it.
GC: And that seems important so that everyone can come see this show.
JJ: Yeah. Again, I won’t mention the name of the show, but: As I’m learning things and I’m surprised by things as I’m getting access into the deaf world — So a couple weekends ago, I went to go see a show, and I had a bunch of opinions about it and really wanted to talk to Lauren about it, and I was like, “So, are you going to get a chance to go and see this? Because I want to talk to you about this, because there’s so much sutff and I’m not quite sure how I think about this and that and I just trust your opinion.” And she’s like, “Well, no, I’m not going to go see that show because it’s not accessible to me and they are not making — GalaPro is the name of the app — they’re not making that closed-caption available and they don’t have interpreted performances.” And this is a Broadway show. And I was frankly shocked — and then not that shocked, but shocked, right? That it should not be that she is not invited into that experience, one, because I want to talk to her about it, but two, because it’s just wrong. And so the fact that that’s still happening is not really acceptable in today’s day and age, because the opportunity exists to make that not happen. And not every show needs to use supertitles. It’s a design element for us. It adds to our show. But there’s no excuse for not having for the deaf community, for not having the GalaPro app or some other level of accessibility. It would be like not having wheelchair spaces in the theater anymore and not allowing anybody who wasn’t ambulatory to not be invited into the stage. And so it’s just not acceptable in the modern world to not — particularly for a Broadway show, where there is the money and there is the time and there is the scope — to not make shows accessible to deaf but also to every community as much as possible. And then, actually, Lauren said something I hadn’t even thought about, which is so very true, that a huge part of the, not deaf, but hard of hearing community now is baby boomers that as they age out and retire that their hearing is diminishing. And so we’re excluding that’d audience as well.
LR: That’s right.
JJ: And that’s just silly.
LR: That’s right. And I think that it’s such an easy fix, an easy problem to solve, when you’re in the planning stages of any production, the creative team, the producers, just need to add accessibility into their budget. It’s an important part. It’s a line item. It’s not an afterthought. So that’s what the problem is. When it becomes an afterthought, producers go, “Oh, gosh, I have to pay fort that, but I can’t afford it. I just don’t want everyone to go see the show.”
GC: You’re on Broadway in “Children of a Lesser God.” What’s next for you guys? Do you know? Josh, do you know what’s coming up for you?
JJ: No. I am fully consumed in this experience. This is everything that I have to give.
GC: Is theater a thing that it is important to you to come back to?
JJ: Mm-hm. Theater has not been the center of my working life. But it has been very specific in that every time that I’ve done a play, it is because there is some specific question I have been asking myself that I’m trying to figure out and the experience —
GC: What’s the question in “Children of a Lesser God”?
JJ: Communication. The last show that Kenny and I did was specifically about racial and sexual dynamics in America, circa Obama’s first election. And as a white guy trying to navigate the modern world, that was very specifically a moment, and this is pre-Trump, but a moment where I was like, “I need these two months of my life inside of this space to explore how this communication is breaking down and how we push through it.” And so, in this, this is much more about the communication dynamic between a man and a woman, where there’s even the desire for love, right? These people are deeply, madly in love with each other, and still get to a place where they can’t truly see each other, or accept what they see at that place. And so, I guess it’s just an iteration of the same question. But, coming back to theater, you spend so much time inside of the rehearsal space and every word on the page is precious and it’s there for a reason, which is not the case in film and television. Writers would tell you differently, but that’s just not the case. And to have the opportunity to dive in under the eyes of somebody like Kenny, with Lauren now — Every specific moment has richness and to have the opportunity, if you take it, to dive into that specificity and all of the beauty and ugliness that that entails, is important to me. And it’s what keeps the fire lit.
GC: And Lauren, what comes next for you? Are you an actor now?
JJ: F—in’ right, she’s an actor. Wait ’til you see her onstage!
LR: Well, I’m just going to echo what Josh said. I am focused totally on this production. I am focused on each show of this production, each performance. And I think about, “What will I discover tonight?” That’s the other thing that, I have to say, I love about theater. It’s not a frozen production. It just keeps growing. And so what someone sees one night might be completely different than what they see on another night because of the experience we’re having, the things we’re discovering that particular night. So that’s what I’m focusing on right now. Seeing what I will keep finding out and learning.
GC: Well, I can’t wait to see it. Thank you guys.
JJ: Thank you.
LR: Thank you.
GC: That was Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff, the stars of the Broadway revival of “Children of a Lesser God,” now playing at Studio 54. On the next episode of Stagecraft, I’ll talk to Lynn Nottage, the two-time Pulitzer winner whose latest play, “Mlima’s Tale,” is now playing Off Broadway. Until then, see you at the theater.